Proper 13, Year C, 2016

“But Jesus, who is my neighbor, specifically?”

Is there any more human question than that?

The particularly human who asks the question is a lawyer, who has been listening to Jesus. He understands that Jesus wants us to love God and our neighbor. He is on board.

But, like any lawyer worth his salt, he wants to be clear on the terms and conditions.

For most of us, the people in our neighborhoods look quite a lot like us. They often have the same skin color, same income bracket, sometimes they even have the exact same Subaru. So, we can imagine loving those neighbors. We can imagine watching the kids when a parent is sick, shoveling the walk for an older neighbor, borrowing or lending a cup of sugar.

But the lawyer has been observing Jesus. The lawyer has seen how Jesus flouts any propriety when it comes to his friends. Jesus surrounds himself with every kind of riff raff. So, perhaps the lawyer is a bit concerned that loving his neighbor is about to get uncomfortable.

Sure enough, as soon as the lawyer asks the question, Jesus tells a story.

And while the story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar stories in all of scripture, it is also one of the most subversive.

You know it well: a man gets robbed and beaten up and thrown into a ditch. A priest, who one would hope would be most qualified to help a person in trouble, walks right by. A Levite, who should know God’s word backwards and forwards, also crosses the road. But, a Samaritan man, a man who would be been considered filth by the Levite and priest, has compassion on the man in the ditch and rescues him.

Jesus is saying that this outsider was more obedient to God than the religious hierarchy of the day.

If you want to follow Jesus, forget about obsessing over the rules, focus on loving God and loving your neighbor.

Now we get to the part of the sermon that I have re-written three times this week.

First, this was a sermon about how the Orlando shooting reminded us that there are communities who feel like they are not welcome in church sanctuaries, so they create their own. Then, this was a sermon grappling about the horrible bombings in Bangladesh, Turkey, Saudia Arabia and Iraq. Then it was a sermon lamenting the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castille and wondering what it means for us to be good neighbors to our African American brothers and sisters. And then, of course, eleven police officers were shot by a sniper in Dallas. Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens all died in the attack.

What a month. What a week.

Our world feels heavy this week. So much senseless death. So much distrust and anger. Our country feels separated into neighborhoods and communities that never intersect.

So, where is Jesus’ good news to us?

Jesus’ good news to us is that we are not the priest. We are not the Levite. We are not even the good Samaritan. We are all the man in the ditch, utterly helpless, but about to be rescued.

God created us in his image, beautiful and creative and full of love. But, we fell into a ditch of our own making, by our selfishness and hatred. We ended up in this ditch of sin and pain, completely unable to help ourselves. So, God became a human being to reach an arm down and pull us out of the ditch. Jesus saved us from being captive to sin and death.

And now that Jesus has rescued us, and we can have a relationship with God, we still need the Holy Spirit to pull us out of our individual ditches. We each are in need of God’s intervention in our lives. None of us are perfect. There is a reason we say the confession every week. We need it! We need a chance to tell ourselves and God about the ways we have come short. We need to ask for help to be better. We need the Spirit’s help to become the creative, loving people God designed us to be.

We can be people of love. We can be peacemakers. We can be good neighbors, but we need the Holy Spirit’s help.

There are signs of hope out there for us to cling to, as we imagine with God what a world might look like if we lived into the true natures God has given us.

After the Pulse shooting, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld in Washington DC, announced that as soon as Shabbat was over, he and his congregation were going to a local gay bar. Can you imagine the expressions on his congregant’s faces? They did not go to protest or judge those inside. They went inside as an act of solidarity. They went inside as an act of love. They talked with their gay neighbors. They prayed together. They learned that they had many connections in common. They were not two separate groups of people, they were intertwined, just like all of us. The congregation left their sanctuary, and entered another. I guarantee you that the people in that bar never in a million years expected an Orthodox Jewish congregation to show up that night, but their visit became an act of love and grace. They were good neighbors.

In the midst of the shootings in Dallas, a mother pushing a stroller began to panic and a group of black lives matter protesters, white and black, male and female, surrounded her and her stroller until they got the baby to safety. They were good neighbors.

The police force in Dallas has been working really hard with their officers, doing de-escalating training and minimizing use of force, building up community engagement, trying to stop this cycle of unnecessary deaths. Before the sniper began shooting, you can find many photos of black lives matter activists and police offers, smiling, arm in arm. The police were protecting the activists, and the activists are still grateful. They were good neighbors.

This summer, our church book group read Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. This book is a letter to Coates’ son, written after Michael Brown’s death. About a dozen of us talked about all the ways throughout American history that the people with power, white people, have tried to keep our African American neighbors at bay. Slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, housing segregation, school segregation, corrupt mortgage practices, mass incarceration: the list goes on and on. Being in a book group was such a small step, but for me at least reading the parts of our country’s history that were not in my school textbooks has been heart breaking and transformative. Hearing the stories of the various parishioners in the group was also incredibly powerful. We each have a connection with racism, whether in our family or in our own hearts. Confessing the ways our own families have benefited from slavery or its aftermath was an important step towards moving forward. My maternal grandmother was mentally ill, and it was the African American nanny, Laura, who gave my mother the stability and loving presence in her life she needed to grow up and be the amazing mom she was to me. Laura left her own children to care for my mother. I directly benefited from Laura’s sacrifice.

When Coates wrote this book, he had no idea it would become a best seller. Coates has been totally flummoxed by so many church groups reading the book. He is not a person of faith and he certainly had no expectation that thousands of book groups in churches across the country would be picking up his work. But he underestimates churches’ desire to do the holy work of confession, lament and reconciliation.

The book group left us with a desire to do something more. To read more, to engage more, to be better neighbors. We want to confront our own racism and work toward transformation. We are not sure what that looks like, but if you are interested be in touch with me of with our Director of Spirituality and Missions, Debbie Scott. The caveat is that I am about to be on vacation for a few weeks! If you email me and I don’t respond, I promise I will get back to you by early August.

We are created and redeemed by a God of infinite love. He desires us to love one another and he will give us what we need to make it happen. Thanks be to God.

Proper 8, Year C, 2016

The Apostle Paul is angry, you guys. Extremely angry.

Paul has worked hard to teach the Galatians the Gospel, and some rival group has come in and told the Galatians that to be Christian, they must obey the Jewish law, including circumcision.

Paul is so mad that in Galatians 5:12, he writes, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” So, be careful how you talk about circumcision around the Apostle Paul, okay?

Paul passionately wants the Galatians to experience the freedom that comes from faith in Christ. He is furious that anyone would undermine the freedom that comes in Christ. For Paul, freedom means no longer having to follow all the particulars of Jewish law. Freedom means that Jesus has done all the work of salvation for us, so following the law is no longer a requirement.

This is wonderful, amazing news, especially if you were a gentile man looking to become a Christian! Dropping the requirement for circumcision makes conversion MUCH MORE ATTRACTIVE.

Freedom from the law sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Not having to check to see if what we eat is kosher. Not having to carefully ritually clean your house if it gets mildew. Not having to leave the community when it is your time of the month? Not having to do any ritual sacrifice of your flock?

Not being bound to the law sounds almost exhilarating! We are free! We can do what we want! But before we get to far ahead of ourselves, Paul writes:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

We are freed from the law, but our faith in Christ binds us not just to Christ, but also to one another. We are given freedom, not to do whatever we want, but so that we can love each other more deeply. We are called to be slaves to each other, to put others before ourselves.

And just in case we think we can love each other without sacrificing too much, Paul lays out what this kind of freedom prohibits: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

What I love about Paul is he writes this FOUR VERSES after he has just wished castration on a group of people. I think Paul is preaching to himself here as much as he is preaching to the Galatians! He knows how tempted we are by our base instincts. For generations the law has been a construct to protect us from these desires and impulses, but now we are free from the law, so what keeps us from just devolving into an orgy of our own desires?

When I first joined the Episcopal Church I was coming from a more conservative evangelical tradition, which put a lot of emphasis on rules. I was a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship during college and it was very clear that we were not supposed to drink alcohol. Our bodies were a temple to the Lord, and alcohol would defile that temple.

When I first started attending St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond, I went to one of their Wednesday night dinners. You guys, there was WINE there. I about fell over. I was entering a church that was full of love and people serving God, but the strict religious imperative against alcohol was not there. It was very exciting.

Eventually, I joined the choir at St. James’. The choir met immediately after these Wednesday night dinners and let’s just say some of the choir enjoyed the wine at dinner a little more than was helpful. Our choir master finally had enough of giggling and lack of focus and gave us stern instructions to limit our drinking at dinner. There was no religious rule not to drink wine, but there was a community reason not to drink wine—being tipsy does not help a person stay on pitch. The wine was getting in the way of us worshiping God together. When members of the choir sacrificed a glass of wine for the good of the choir, rehearsals went much more smoothly and we were much better prepared for Sunday morning worship.

In our case, Paul was right that one of the things on his list—drunkenness–was getting in the way of our community life. If the altos had been super jealous of the sopranos, that would have been problematic, too. Dissension in the choir would have impacted our worship, as well. Paul’s list of prohibitions are a good guide to indicate when we are getting off the rails when it comes to loving our neighbor.

Paul gives us a list of qualities to look for as signs that we are on the right track: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He describes these as Fruits of the Spirit, because we only develop these when the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, making us more like the Jesus we follow. We’ll never be perfect, but the Holy Spirit is at work transforming us into people who actually do love others and who exhibit the Fruits of the Spirit.

Whenever we baptize a child, I walk that child up and down the aisles here at church and I tell that child that you belong to him and he belongs to you. In baptism we become part of a community. And in Christian community we lift up the common good over and above our own individual freedoms. We look out for each other. We take care of each other.

Our country’s identity is so rooted in individual freedoms that it can feel really strange, and even wrong, to build a community rooted in interdependence and sacrifice, yet God calls us to serve one another and to put each other’s wellbeing above our own. We belong to each other. For this really to work, we also need to be vulnerable and honest with each other. While our instincts tell us we want to be independent, God has designed us as interdependent people. We are supposed to help each other, and we are supposed to ask for help when we need it.

We’ll end on a few questions and moments of reflection. I will not ask who you would hope would castrate themselves. I’ll leave that for your personal prayer time.

What fruit of the Spirit do you hope God will grow in you?

What might God be asking you to give up for the good of the community?

What do you need from someone else in the community but are afraid to ask?

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proper 5, Year C, 2006

 

Last week we heard about the faith of a Centurion. The Centurion, a soldier who was part of the Empire that ruled over the Jewish people, had such faith in Jesus that he sent out his friends to ask Jesus to heal his slave from afar. He had faith that Jesus did not even need to come to his house, but could heal the slave just by thinking about the slave.

The centurion’s faith is the faith of a confident guy. His is the faith of a CEO who is used to people following his orders. He sees in Jesus another man in command, someone able to do God’s work with power.

After healing the centurion’s slave, Jesus and the crowd that is following him walk toward a town called Nain. As he moves toward the city gates, Jesus sees a funeral procession. The members of the procession are not looking for Jesus, they just happen to be moving the body of the dead man outside of the city gates so he can be buried. This man has just died—in Jewish custom a body had to be buried within 24 hours—so the grief of the crowd is fresh.

No one is grieving more than the man’s mother. This man is her only son. Not only that, but this woman is widowed. With the death of her son, she has lost her family. Her world is forever changed. She is devastated.

She does not ask for Jesus’ help. She may have never even heard of Jesus. Her mind is fully absorbed in the moment.

Jesus, passing by the procession cannot keep walking. He is moved by compassion to help her.

Now, the author of the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus as feeling compassion pretty regularly. But Luke strips that phrase out of the stories he borrows from Mark. But here, in this story, a story that only appears in the Gospel of Luke, Luke chooses to describe Jesus having compassion. He wants us to understand the power of the emotional Jesus experiences seeing this woman’s grief. It literally moves him. He cannot help but to act.

This story does not stand in isolation. You may have noticed all the similarities between Jesus’ resurrection of this man, and Elijah’s resurrection of the widow’s son in 1st Kings. These stories are speaking to each other, and their conversation speaks to us.

Elijah prayed to God to resurrect the widow’s son. He threw himself on the son’s body. And God resurrected the son. Jesus needs to do none of that. He simply touches the stretcher the young man is lying on and tells him to rise. He is not asking God to bring the boy to life. He, being God, commands the boy to live.

Jesus, has all the power of God. And he uses this power of healing and of life, not just for confident Centurions, but for grieving women who don’t even know that asking Jesus for help is an option.

We so often think about healing stories as being about the faith of the recipient, but healing stories are about the power and the compassion of God. Jesus chooses to resurrect the widow’s son not because he has earned it or his mother has earned it, but because it is in the nature of God to feel compassion for human beings. It is in the nature of God to transform suffering into healing and death into life.

He restores the young man to life and restores the widow to the life she knew. He gives her back some of what has been taken away from her, even though she is completely passive. She doesn’t speak once in the story. She doesn’t move toward her son after he is resurrected. Jesus does everything for her in this story, even handing her son to her after he is resurrected.

We cannot all be the Centurion. Most of us don’t walk around in complete confidence of our authority and God’s authority. Whether it is a crisis in our own family, or a hurricane, or a political season, we often look around in shock and ask ourselves, “What is happening?” We are often too overwhelmed to act, or even to know how to ask God for help.

And yet, the God of compassion who was moved to restore sons to their mothers through Elijah and Jesus, moves towards all of us in compassion as well.

Jesus restores the life of one man in this story, but through his death and resurrection he restores the lives of all humanity. All the people we have mourned, all the people we will mourn, they will all be restored to us. New life will be breathed into each of us after we die. We will all be restored to God and to one another.

If we look for them, we can find moments of God breaking into our world and bringing little resurrections in the here and now. These little resurrections help us hold onto our faith as we await the great Resurrection.

Charlie has a book out from the library right now called Maybe Something Beautiful. It’s a whimsical story about a little girl who lives in a drab city, who hangs a picture on a wall and then meets a muralist. She and he begin to add color to the walls of the drab city and soon the whole neighborhood is painting with them. At the end of the book, you find out that this is a true story, and the illustrator is the muralist who helped create the Urban Art Trail in San Diego. The art helped heal and bring life to a city that needed it. A small resurrection.

These small resurrections can take many forms, the first laugh after a period of grief. A new friend after a difficult move. The first job when you are trying to start over.

The first time you hold hands after a difficult patch in a relationship.

Small resurrections are not spectacular. They are nothing to tweet about. But they are life sustaining. They remind us that there, somewhere, is order to the universe. They remind us that we are loved. They remind us that there is a big resurrection waiting for us.

Whether we are heroes of faith, or barely faithful, Jesus’ love and resurrection are for us. Whether we are confident or overwhelmed by life, Jesus’ love and resurrection are for us.

We follow a God whose is moved by our suffering, who longs not only to comfort us, but to transform our story. We follow a God who does this, not because we deserve it or even want it, but because it is in his nature.

May you be blessed this week by small resurrections that remind you of the great one waiting for you.

Amen.

Trinity Sunday, Year C, 2016

In the mid-2000s, one of the most popular characters on Saturday Night Live was Debbie Downer. Rachel Dratch played a dour woman who could turn any occasion into a chance to talk about something devastating. About to order a steak at a family reunion? Debbie will tell you all about Mad Cow Disease. Excited because Tigger hugged you at Disney? Debbie will remind you about how a tiger attacked Roy of Siegfied and Roy. After every one of these tidbits, the camera zoomed into Debbie’s face and a sad trombone noise played. “Wah, waaaah”.

Let me tell you, Debbie is on to something!

There is a lot of suffering in the world. We live in this in-between time. Jesus has come and lived among us and done the work of our salvation, but we are still waiting for the Kingdom of God to come to full fruition. We are still waiting, longing for a world without sin, a world without suffering.

The biggest questions we get as clergy are around questions of suffering. And so, before we get to Paul’s perspective in Romans 5, I want to talk a bit about suffering in general.

Today we’ll be talking about three broad categories of suffering, although I’m sure if we put our heads together we could come up with more! For today’s purposes we’ll talk about: Suffering because we are part of an imperfect creation, suffering because of human sin, and suffering because of institutional evil.

First, we suffer because we are part of a creation that is not perfect. Our bodies have millions of cells that all have to work perfectly together for us to be healthy. And even if we are healthy our entire life, eventually the mechanical parts of our body just wear out. We are finite. The website Humans of New York has been doing a series about childhood cancer at Sloane Kettering. One of the doctors interviewed said:

Twelve thousand kids per year get cancer in the United States. But the extraordinary thing isn’t that cancer happens. The extraordinary thing is that cancer doesn’t happen more often. Every human life begins with a single cell. Trillions of cells will form from that single cell. During this process, the DNA will rearrange itself hundreds of times to form all different types of cells: muscle, nerve, bone, blood, connective tissue. If you look at these cells under a microscope, each one has special properties. They all have codes that tell them exactly what to do and exactly when to stop doing it. The complexity of this is extraordinary. There are numerous fail-safes at every level to prevent mistakes. How is it possible that it ever works correctly? There are trillions of chances for something to go wrong. God, it’s unbelievable. The longer I study cancer, the more I’m in awe of the healthy child.

Each of us will end up suffering because we are physically or mentally ill, or because someone we love dies, just as a consequence of being a created human being in a creation that is imperfect. We don’t think a tree has disappointed God if it gets Dutch Elm Disease. In the same way, getting cancer or being depressed does not mean you have failed God somehow, it is just part of being a human being.

Second, we can suffer because of human sin. This one is pretty obvious. We suffer when our partner commits adultery. We suffer if we are hit by a drunk driver. We suffer when someone is unkind to us. But our own sin can make us suffer, too. St. Paul was deeply familiar with this phenomenon. In Romans 7 he writes,

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

We want to go to the gym, but sloth overtakes us. We want to eat well, but greed or anxiety entices us to eat too much. We mean to be kind, but we lash out defensively. We intend to be faithful, but the lure of the old high school flame is powerful. That kind of inner disconnect can cause enormous suffering. We find ourselves making choices that harm us and the people around us, but we cannot seem to stop. I’m telling you, Debbie Downer. Wah Waaaaah.

Finally, institutional evil, or oppression. Whether intentional or unintentional, societies can inflict suffering on communities, often the poor. Think of the effects of uranium mining on the townships of Johannesburg. Think of the legacy of housing discrimination in this country. Think of those factory workers in the third world who work in abominable conditions to make clothes for westerners.

In the June issue of The Atlantic, Paul Tough writes about what happens to children who are raised in systemic poverty. He writes,

Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity how severe and chronic stress in childhood—what doctors sometimes call toxic stress—leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop and, significantly, the way they function in school.

These children suffer from the consequences of broken creation, and because of human sin, but also by this larger more complicated system that exists around them and makes it difficult for anyone in their community to affect change.

So, this is all fairly depressing. Why, then does the Apostle Paul tell us to rejoice in our suffering? Does he want people just to stay where they are and suck it up? Does he see suffering as God’s discipline for us? Is God an uptight nun, ready with the ruler to smack us when we get too out of hand?

No, Paul says we can rejoice in our suffering because of what God has already done for us and what God is doing for us.

Through Jesus Christ, God has blessed the human experience, including suffering. Rather than human suffering being something separate from God, Jesus makes human suffering into something that God experiences. Jesus experienced betrayal and pain and death. His father experienced the suffering of watching his Son die. Rather than protecting himself from suffering, God chooses to fully enter into our life experience and join us. When we suffer, God is alongside us.

God even forgives us for the suffering that we cause. While we may never be able to make good choices, never be able to live a perfectly healthy and holy life, God chooses to eliminate any distance between Godself and us. Through Jesus’ resurrection, God forgives us our sins and sends the Holy Spirit to pour love into our hearts.

It is this love of the Holy Spirit that transforms our suffering. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted.

Paul is addressing a community likely experiencing persecution for being Christian, so he is speaking to a particular kind of suffering. In chapters 5-8 of Romans, Paul is explaining the cosmic power of God who has changed the course of history and of the human position in the universe. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has once and for all defeated the powers of death and in. In Chapter 8 we get the wonderful speech about how absolutely nothing can separate human beings from the love of God.

Paul is not lecturing the community in Rome about having a stiff upper lip. He is inviting them to live into their new identity as people who have absolutely nothing that separates them from God. Not even their worst sufferings can separate them from God. Now, with the power of the Holy Spirit, those sufferings can actually be transformed into experiences that can shape their character and perspective.

Suffering does not get transformed because we have a stiff upper lip or because we try really hard to have a good perspective. Just like our salvation, suffering gets transformed because God chooses to do it. The Holy Spirit is the actor here, not us. When you are suffering, it is not your job to try to grow your character from the experience. There is no pressure for you to make something good out of something terrible. That is the Holy Spirit’s job.

Many, many people at Sloane Kettering shared their stories of suffering with Humans of New York. We heard from parents and their children who survived cancer and parents of children who did not. Some entries were almost unreadable because the pain of their subjects was so palpable.   But by sharing their stories, Humans of New York raised $3.4 million dollars from its readers to donate toward cancer research to help find cures for children’s cancer. Those who suffered helped create hope, just by sharing their stories, even if they were feeling hopeless. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and does not always show up in the ways we hope it will. The Holy Spirit’s job is not to protect us from pain, as much as we would like it to. But the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are constantly at work in our lives, shaping us into the people they have created us to be. They will not abandon us. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Pentecost, Year C, 2016

Happy birthday! Was I the only person to bring a birthday hat today? Well, today is Pentecost, the church’s birthday! So happy birthday to us!

A few weeks ago, our Middle School Sunday School class had an amazing conversation about the Pentecost story. One of our students has always been troubled by this story. She said, roughly, that the disciples had been incredibly close for three years, and then suddenly they all started speaking different languages. She was afraid they could not longer speak to each other. I reassured her that the disciples retained their ability to speak their common language, but I can’t stop thinking about her concern for their disciples. She wasn’t entirely wrong.

The disciples are about to be sent out.

For three years they have followed Jesus around, enjoying an incredibly close community together. They have been through the trauma of Jesus’ death and the unsettling joy of his resurrection. Before Jesus ascends, he tells the disciples to hang tight in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit.

They may not realize it, but those days in the Upper Room are a kind of final goodbye. They have been incubating, marinating in Jesus’ presence and teachings, but God has big plans for them.

The first gift the Holy Spirit gives the disciples is the gift of languages. God wants every person and every nation to know about the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. When the disciples all start speaking in different languages, the diverse people of Jerusalem perk up! Suddenly they are hearing God’s good news in a way that feels personal. God is for them, specifically!

This multilingual encounter is just the beginning. While at first the disciples may think they will spend the rest of their lives in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit has other plans. Before too long, authorities will be coming after the disciples, and the Holy Spirit will push them out of Jerusalem, to the very corners of the world as they knew it.

According to history and legend disciples ended up in Syria, Rome, Persia, Ethiopia and India. The disciples went further than they could have imagined through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We may celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the church, but God has always gathered and God has always sent out. God gathered Abraham and his family, and them sent them to Egypt. God gathered Moses and the Israelites, and then sent them to the Promised Land. Through David, God gathered his people in Jerusalem, but then sent them out in the Diaspora. The rhythm of life with God is this gathering and then sending out.

This is the rhythm of our life of our faith, too.

We gather here every Sunday to hear God’s story, to break bread together, to be strengthened. In this space we are reminded that whatever is happening in our lives, that we are loved and we are part of a larger story. We get a chance to apologize for the ways we have fallen short, and get re-oriented to who God is and who we are. We are beloved children of God. We are the bearer’s of Christ’s light. We are the reconcilers and healers.

We can’t stay here. About noon, we start shutting the lights off. God doesn’t call us to stay in this space. We have amazing, incredible news to share with our community. We get to go back to school, to work, to our friends and live our faith. We get to tell people that they are not their worst day, that God has a new story for them, a story of grace and forgiveness and new life. We get to practice what we preach by offering forgiveness to others and to ourselves.

We also get to listen. Stephanie Spellers, canon for evangelism and reconciliation to our national church, believes that a lot of our work as Christians is to listen. When asked how to reach out to millennials, which is a question the church wrings its hands about quite a bit, she says,

Here’s the secret: talk to them! Let them tell you what they long for in a community. Let them tell you what authentic prayer sounds like. Let them tell you what they wish church were up to. And then ask if there’s anything you could do together for God. Start a partnership. Offer your wisdom and honor theirs. Be genuinely curious about what God is up to in their world and in their lives, and share what God is up to in your life.

Sharing our faith can seem really intimidating, but it’s really just about listening to someone’s story and then sharing our own story.

I confess that I am the type of person on an airplane who puts my earphones in immediately. I love being a pastor but I am uninterested in being a pastor to random people on United Airlines. Frankly, I find talking with strangers a little scary! However, a few weeks ago Elizabeth Butler, Audi Barlow and I went to a conference in Texas about welcoming people to church. During the conference many pastors talked a bout their experiences talking to strangers in their communities. I immediately felt insecure, because that is just not my gift. I am good with people I know but super shy with strangers.

On the flight back my seat mate and I were trying to figure out how to use the new United App that allows you to watch in flight movies on your phone. That led to a conversation about Beyonce’s Lemonade, which led to a three hour conversation that was just incredible. He was a DC patent lawyer born and raised in Detroit. We talked about race relations and raising small children. We talked about marriage and work place culture. And eventually, about two hours in, we talked about God. Nothing was forced, and even though we were from two totally different backgrounds in two totally different professions, we found that we had much more in common than we had differences. As we left the plane, he said, “Be sure to preach about this conversation!” And so, I am.

God sent me out, and it wasn’t terrible! It wasn’t even scary. In fact, it was one of the most rewarding conversations of my life. If this chicken can do it, so you can you!

Being sent out by God is a little scary, but guess what. Once a week, he gathers us back in. We go out, we do the hard work of living our faith in the world, and then we scurry back here to the community that loves us, to hear the Word and receive the sacrament.

At the end of the service we always send you out into the world. Often we say, “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.” You can go in peace, because God has given what you need through the Sunday service to do the work he is calling you to do this week. God sends you, but when you come to church, he sends you prepared.

If life ever gets so hard that you just can’t wait until next Sunday, call Eric or me any time. Think of us as your cheerleaders. I’ll even let you wear the birthday hat. We are so impressed by all the good work you do out there! All the loving, and healing, and care taking. All the teaching and writing and leading. All the beautiful art and music you put into the world. God’s blessing on you as God sends you out this week. And we’ll see you soon.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easter 7, Year C, 2016

For the Celtic Service

Tonight we celebrate a marvelous concurrence – Mother’s Day and the feast Day of Julian of Norwich fall upon the same day.

Mother’s Day was not started by Hallmark as a sentimental celebration of maternal virtues. Mother’s Day was launched in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe as an act based in rage and grief. So many mothers had lost sons to the Civil War, that Howe was determined that mothers should meet to find new ways of moving forward as a country, so wars would become a thing of the past.

In her proclamation, she wrote,

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Let us meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let us then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God!

Julia Ward Howe understood the deep suffering of mothers of soldiers and the power for change that can come from that suffering. Sadly, we still have too many opportunities for mothers to channel their grief for good. Just this week Sandra Bland’s mother testified before a Congressional panel. Last week the mothers of Michael Brown, Travon Martin and Eric Garner appeared in Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade. This year mothers Glennon Melton and Brene Brown and other members of the Compassion Collective have used Mother’s Day to raise money for families of suffering refugees and for American homeless youth. There is still so much suffering. There is still so much for work for all of us to do.

All that suffering and care taking takes its toll on us—men and women. What do we do with our grief? How to we keep our energy to do the work God calls us to do in the world?

Julian of Norwich was alive at a time of unimaginable suffering. The plague was killing people all around her. She was surrounded by death and poverty. She was an anchoress at an Abbey, and would have counseled those around her. In her writings she gives us a glimpse of the God who gave her comfort in such difficult times.

Julian experienced God both as father and mother. She uses language that feels very foreign since most of the expression of God we have are so masculine. She opens our imaginations to a different image and way of experiencing God.

She wrote:

I understand three ways of contemplating motherhood in God. First is the foundation of our nature’s creation; the second is his taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins; the third is the motherhood at work . . . and it is all one love.

For Julian, each member of the Trinity had a motherly element, whether the motherly work of creation, the motherly work of embodiment and nurture, or the motherly work of the Spirit.

For her, the answer to human suffering was to turn to God as a child turns to its mother. When we feel helpless, we do not need to despair, we simply turn to a loving God, who longs to mother us, to comfort us.

When she thought about reflecting on our own sin, she wrote,

But even when our falling and our wretchedness are shown to us, we are so much afraid and so greatly ashamed of ourselves that we scarcely know where we can put ourselves. But then our courteous Mother does not wish us to flee away, for nothing would be less pleasing to him; but he then wants us to behave like a child. For when it is distressed and frightened, it runs quickly to its mother; and if it can do no more, it calls to the mother for help with all its might. So he wants us to act as a meek child, saying: My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my beloved Mother, have mercy on me.

While we may have to function like adults most of the time in our lives, especially when helping those who suffer, or suffering ourselves, Julian invites us to remember that we are God’s children. When we are before God, whether we imagine God as a mother or a father, we can release the illusion of control. We can collapse before God and seek comfort and strength, like a child does from its mother or father. God will comfort us, and then give us the strength we need for whatever the next step is in our lives.

Whatever battles you are fighting, whatever grief you are feeling, may God our loving mother give you the comfort and strength you need to carry on. Amen.

Easter 3, Year C, 2016

What do you do the day after?

You have mourned Jesus’ death. You have been astonished by his empty grave. Your heart almost stopped when you saw him in person in the upper room.

But now, it’s the next day. What do you do?

If you’re Peter, you go fishing. Fishing is comfortable. Fishing has a rhythm and clear expectations. In your boat you know how to act, know what to expect.

What Peter does not expect is that he is going to see Jesus again. So, when a mysterious man tells Peter and the other disciples to place their nets on the side of the boat, they do. And when the nets hang heavy with fish as they draw them back into their boats, Peter has his moment of recognition. Apparently fishing is hot work, because Peter is naked. So, Peter frantically throws his clothes on and then splashes into the water, swimming as fast as he can to get to Jesus.

Jesus and the disciples share a breakfast of broiled fish, and then Jesus pulls Peter aside.

Jesus has had been plans for Peter since their first meeting. Jesus changed Peter’s name from Simon, because Peter means rock, and Jesus intends for Peter to be the rock on which the church will be built. But even after the resurrection, Peter is not quite ready. Peter thinks he can just go back to his old life, back to fishing. Jesus has other plans.

Peter has always been passionate about Jesus, but impetuous. And he’s just denied being Jesus’ follower three times. And so Jesus and Peter need to have a little conversation, a literal come-to-Jesus.

Jesus does not berate, Peter. He simply asks Peter if he loves him. Peter, ever passionate cries “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!” This pattern repeats a total of three times, perhaps reversing the three fold denial of Jesus that happened previously. Each time Peter replies “You know that I love you!”, Jesus tells him to feed or tend to Jesus’ sheep.

Peter’s future is not in fishing. Peter’s future is giving God’s people spiritual food. In Matthew’s Gospel we have the Great Commission, in which Jesus tells his followers to go out into the world and spread the good news. In the Gospel of John we have this intimate conversation between Jesus and Peter. Peter is loved by Jesus, even after his denial. Peter has experienced the power of God in the resurrected Jesus. Peter has first hand understanding that Jesus loves us just as we are, but also has big plans for us.

When we encounter the Risen Christ in our own lives, whether at the moment of our baptism, an experience at the Eucharist, or an encounter with another Christian, we will never be the same again. A relationship with Christ is not just about this deep sense of being loved and forgiven, but is about being propelled forward in a life of faith.

First, I want to get at this sense of being loved and forgiven. Some of us are given a message when we are young that we are not enough, that we are unloveable. We believe that if we come before God, we are inviting his judgment and condemnation. But that is not the God that Jesus reveals to us. Jesus reveals a God who is able and willing to love a hot mess like Peter who abandoned him at Jesus’ real time of need. Jesus loves Peter in the midst of his imperfection. Notice that in that conversation, Jesus calls Peter: Simon, Son of John. Each time, Jesus drives home the point that he has known Peter since he was Simon. He has loved Peter since before Simon was transformed into Peter. He knows who Peter has been, and who Peter can be.

Jesus’ desire for Peter is for him to leaving fishing behind, and take up shepherding. Not sheep, like David and Moses before him, but shepherding human beings. Jesus wants people to be cared for, to be told the life giving news of the resurrection.

And Peter does it. Peter goes on to be the rock of the Church. He becomes a mature leader who helps the early church figure out what it means to follow a resurrected Jesus. Cowardly Peter bravely stands before the Sanhedrin authorities and claims his faith openly. He is given a vision that helps him understand that Jesus’ good news is not just meant for those of Jewish descent, but is for everyone. He begins the churches in Antioch and Rome. Peter changes the world.

Let me be clear. We do not earn God’s love by going out and doing what he wants us to do. The love always comes first. Part of the experience of being beloved of God is realizing we are worth something.   Peter was probably drowning in shame by the time he encountered Jesus on that beach, but by the time his encounter with Jesus was over, he was healed and ready to do big things for God.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been in the news this week because through some reporting and a DNA test, during Holy Week he learned that the man who raised him, Gavin Welby, an alcoholic whose ability to father was spotty at best, was not actually his father. His real biological father, Anthony Montague Brown, was a co-worker of his mother’s when they both worked for Winston Churchill. Justin Welby’s past was not the past of someone you would think would end up being the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Welby has long felt a deep sense of God’s love for him. The entire Telegraph article is worth a read, but one of the most moving parts is Welby’s response to the reporter’s question about whether he had found, in God, the father he had lacked in Gavin Welby. Welby replied,

“Yes!,” … “It wasn’t part of the package I was being sold. I thought it was about forgiveness, repentance and new life, which are all very important. But finding in the midst of looking after my father that here was a Father who was perfectly dependable and utterly true and who knew me deeply and loved me much more certainly, was a surprise beyond belief, wonderful.”

Welby experienced that profound parental love of God before he was called to do big things. God loved him first, then sent him out into the world.

God sees something in each of us. He sees the artist, the leader, the communicator, the compassionate heart—whatever our special gifts are. He knows who we have been, he knows our mistakes, but he also knows our potential.

God knows that with his love, we each have the potential to bring God’s kingdom a little closer to fruition. Some of us are called to fight for justice. Some of us are called to be reconcilers. Some of us are called to be teachers of God’s story. Some of us are called to spread God’s message of hope in a sometimes bleak world. Some of us are called to be prayer warriors. We are all called to help each other along the way.

And we don’t have to have some flashy job in the Kingdom like Peter or Justin Welby. We will do our work for God in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our offices.

I’ll leave you today with two questions this week.

  1. Where in your life is God trying to show you his love for you?
  2. How is God asking you to share that love with others?

Amen.